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Exhortation: the Only Option?

IN a speech in Cleveland on Jan. 13, President Clinton called on the Russians to halt the war in Chechnya. But the war continued.

The president has not been alone in his ineffectiveness. Exhortations of the United Nations Security Council and European leaders have similarly been ignored. Neither has this been true only in Chechnya; whether in Bosnia, Armenia, Rwanda, or the Middle East, warring parties rarely appear to respond to external demands for peace.

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Should world leaders, especially US officials, continue to speak out when no one pays attention? Strong rhetoric that seems to bring no results weakens the credibility of the speaker, both at home and in the areas of conflict. Yet in the US, few alternatives exist.

Americans, still taking seriously the ``one remaining superpower'' label, expect their leaders to command others. Whatever the administration, United States leaders have little choice but to comment on distant conflicts, especially where Russia is involved. Nightly television coverage of Grozny brings the issue inescapably to the fore. Not to speak out is to risk being seen as condoning brutal actions, however remote the conflict.

But more is at stake for the US than its leaders' image or credibility. Russia remains a significant nuclear power. Its internal political developments can determine whether anticipated cooperation on such critical issues as arms control will be realized. Clinton believes that aid to Russian reform is in US interests. Attitudes toward the Chechnya battle are strongly conditioned by concern over developments within Russia.

In Washington, criticism of Russian action plays into the hands of those opposed to aid to Moscow. In Moscow, silence from Washington can be misinterpreted by hard-liners and soft-liners as indifference. Sharp criticism is likely to be seen as interference. Russian nationalists, whose influence appears to be increasing, are grumbling about the undue influence of the US on the politics and economics of the Russian Federation.

Any US leader, in such circumstances, faces an American public that is not prepared to support an active role in the Chechnyan affair, whatever the degree of concern for the victims. Demands to stop the slaughter would have greater meaning as part of a broader US involvement in a peace strategy, but that strategy does not exist. Acceptance of the position that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation precludes even an active role through the UN Security Council.

Still, the effect of words from outside cannot be discounted. Because of increased communications and the greater openness of Russian society, action such as that in Grozny cannot be hidden. Official comment supplements the TV drama with indications that the world is watching and caring. Only the most insensitive government can ignore this scrutiny.

The question then becomes: what to say? To blast Yeltsin is to encourage his opponents. To make specific demands on the parties is to enter into an issue of only peripheral concern to most Americans.

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Calls on both sides to stop fighting have echoed through US diplomacy in many issues, whether in the Middle East, Central America, or Asia. Such calls have been effective on the ground only when the US has been prepared to play a significant role and when those fighting reach a point at which the objectives no longer seem attainable. Until then, exhortations, demanded by politics and sympathy, may have little effect. But for US leaders facing such circumstances, silence is seldom a realistic option. It is certainly not in the case of Chechnya.

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